Seven Days to Freedom

On a warm May morn­ing last spring I walked out of my house in San Clemente and down
the over­grown trail to Trestles’s for an ear­ly surf.  I pad­dled out to glass and the peace that comes with a morn­ing ses­sion.  Tues­day morn­ing, twen­ty surfers.  A four foot swell com­ing in from the south, just above aver­age waves in long sets, sep­a­rat­ed by 15 min­utes of com­plete peace on the water.  To my left, towards the enor­mous twin breasts of the San Onofre nuclear plant, ten surfers, all but one wear­ing a wet­suit.  The one with­out a suit was well built, tan, with medi­um length dark hair tipped with blond from the salt and the sea.

After catch­ing a wave and pad­dling back out, I found myself almost next to him, per­haps five feet away.  As he turned away for a per­fect left, I caught a glimpse of his back, a mass of criss-cross­ing scar tissue
, the white lines appar­ent against his surfer­’s tan.  Jesus, I thought, what hap­pened to him?  I saw him skim down the line, his head and shoul­ders ris­ing and falling behind the crest of the wave he rode.  He was good, smooth, with the kind of move­ment you get from long hours on the water.  Forty min­utes lat­er both of us were still out there, and by chance, and I admit, some, I found myself next to him again. 

I gave a nod.  “Nice morn­ing.”  “Yeah, not many like these, eh?”  He turned, look­ing for a set to roll in, and unable to con­tain my curios­i­ty, I burst out.  “What hap­pened to your back?”  He turned and looked at me.  “What do you think?”

God­damn, looks like you fell in a thresh­er to me.  When’d it hap­pen?”  The words ran away from me, and an embar­rased silence filled the space between us.  “Sor­ry, did­n’t mean to be nosey.”  I turned away, pray­ing for a wave to come and let me ride off.

In the spring of ’98,” he began, and I turned around.  He smiled at me.  “Not many peo­ple ask.”

He began again.  “In the spring of ’98, my girl­friend and I sold most of what we had, packed the rest, and flew to Moroc­co.  We went to learn Ara­bic, and because we were in love with the desert, and the mys­tery of Africa, and trav­el­ing.  We went to a lan­guage school for two months, tak­ing class in the morn­ing and work­ing in the after­noon, her dying cloth and me chop­ping wood.  The jobs did­n’t pay much, but we did them more for the expe­ri­ence and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn the lan­guage than we did for mon­ey.  We’ve got enough.”  A shy smile.  He was proud, almost arro­gant, of hav­ing “enough”.

After two months we decid­ed we knew enough of the lan­guage, and the wan­der­lust was strong, so we bought two camels for a hun­dred bucks each and start­ed to tour the coun­try.  For six months we went every­where we could think of, climb­ing high into the Atlas moun­tains, smok­ing the most amaz­ing  hash, com­ing back down and loung­ing on the beach, haunt­ing old cities, look­ing for old movie sets, talk­ing with people.

We were in the mid­dle of a two week trip into the back coun­try when we real­ized she was preg­nant.  It would be our first child, and nei­ther of us want­ed any­thing to go wrong.  We had­n’t planned for it, but it also seemed roman­tic to have a baby in the desert.”  He blushed.  It was hard to imag­ine him say­ing “roman­tic”.

We came in to re-sup­ply in Fez, in the north.  As we came into the town, we real­ized some­thing was wrong.  There had been some prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment, but nei­ther of us had giv­en it thought.  Fez was tense, guys in the streets with AK’s, peo­ple hur­ry­ing every­where, you did­n’t go out­side with­out a pur­pose.  We left Fez with the ris­ing sun, after a hot, uneasy night.  Sketchy.  We made camp a about an hour beyond town, hob­bled the camels, unrolled our blan­kets, and built a fire.  After a long night of talk­ing and think­ing, our options were three.  One, to stay in Mor­roc­co and con­tin­ue our trip by camel.  We had three and a half months left on our visa, and we felt it was a shame to waste the time and run home as soon as we felt a lit­tle threat­ened.  Two, to walk back into town, hire a taxi and go straight to the air­port, fly­ing back to Cal­i­for­nia the next day and damn the expense.  It was prob­a­bly the wis­est option, but our least favorite.  Three, if we could nei­ther con­tin­ue our trek nor fly out of the coun­try, we would try and cross the bor­der to Alge­ria and find a flight out.

We decid­ed to sleep on it, go back to town, re-assess the sit­u­a­tion and make a deci­sion.  Ear­ly the next morn­ing we woke, broke camp, and by late after­noon were on the out­skirts of Fez.
The town was on fire.  As we got clos­er, we began to meet peo­ple going the direc­tion we were com­ing from.  We asked them, “What’s going on?” and they answered, “War.  The gov­ern­men­t’s tak­en the town.”  We turned around again and walked back to safe­ty.  Our three options had turned to one.  We would trek to Algeria.

After two weeks of dodg­ing patrols, we crossed the range of moun­tains that runs down the spine of Moroc­co, and were days away from the bor­der.  We took shel­ter out­side an old goat cor­ral and lay down to rest.  We were tired, but not beat.  Hun­gry, but not starv­ing.  At that point, we were basi­cal­ly two kids hav­ing a bitchin’ time, a lit­tle scared, but enjoy­ing everything.”

We woke to kicks and slaps, the camels scream­ing, and gun­shots.  At first we thought we had been caught by a ran­dom gov­ern­ment patrol, and prayed at least for some kind of legal process, a tri­al, anything.

It was clear after a few grunts in Ara­bic that these weren’t gov­ern­ment, but ban­dits.  Hell, they were doing more or less what I’d have been doing in their shoes.  Tak­ing advan­tage of the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion.  Look­ing back, I can’t say I blamed them, and it end­ed being great kar­ma  that we we
re cap­tured, but what hap­pened after…”

He paused.  “Well.  What hap­pened after, eh?  They kept us for two days, and at sun­rise on the third, after the morn­ing call to prayer, we were tak­en to a thick wood­en post plant­ed firm­ly in the ground and tied bac
k to back.  A line of men faced us from ten yards away, all car­ry­ing auto­mat­ic rifles, AK-47’s.  We were going to be shot.  Nei­ther of us could speak.”

The surfer stopped talking.

Jesus”, I said.

He looked at me, com­ing back from his sto­ry.  “Not exact­ly a morn­ing ses­sion kind of sto­ry, eh?”

She spoke up that day, my chick, and saved us.  She’d been read­ing the Koran for ages, was all into that funky reli­gious shit, you know how some peo­ple are, search­ing for God, look­ing for some­thing.  She found it, found it that morn­ing, and pulled us back from the oth­er side.”

She was tak­ing fast, stum­bling over her­self but at the same time very clear, and it took me a while to make the tran­si­tion back to Ara­bic; we had been talk­ing in Eng­lish since we left Fez. I had to pay atten­tion and trans­late in my head what she was say­ing.  Appar­ent­ly there’s some old fuckin’ cer­e­mo­ny for pris­on­ers in the desert, from the Koran or some fuckin’ book, some­thing to give them one last shot.”

He half smiled, and I knew right then that he was immense­ly proud of him­self and embar­rassed at the same time for what­ev­er had hap­pened that day in the desert.

The deal is, and you’ll want to remem­ber this if you’re ever round­ed up some dark African night,”.  A quick smile.  “Remem­ber to request the sev­en days to free­dom. Or, maybe not.”“The sev­en days bit is a lie.”  A quick grimace.

You ever seen a camel up close?”, he asked.

At the zoo, not close.”

They’re big ani­mals, man, and stub­born.  Got­ta whip ’em some­times to get ’em to do what you want.  You use a camel whip, leather, ’bout three, four feet long, braid­ed at one end for a han­dle.  Oth­er end is a hard, two-inch wide strip.”

For sev­en days, one man, a vol­un­teer, can take pun­ish­ment from a camel whip.  Nine lash­es a day, five in the morn­ing, four in the after­noon.  Dur­ing those sev­en days the man may make no sound, and is allowed no food.  If, after sev­en days, those con­di­tions have been sat­is­fied, the cap­tors are oblig­ed to free their cap­tives.  Noth­ing more.”  He cleared his throat.  “Fuck­ers are harsh.”

He turned and stretched, a cal­cu­lat­ed move­ment.  His white scars stood out in the sun.

Six­teen days”, he said.

If you make a sound, or eat, you start over.  Once you begin, you suc­ceed. Or…”  His voice faded. 

Usu­al­ly, you die.”

Jesus H. Christ.  Who the fuck was I talk­ing to?  The moment seemed sur­re­al.  The sun reflect­ed off the water, the wind was begin­ning to pick up, off­shore, a rar­i­ty.  I looked around.  We were sur­round­ed by oth­er surfers, lis­ten­ing to the sto­ry.  They had pad­dled over unno­ticed as they caught bits and pieces.

You smoke pot, man?”, the stranger asked.  I looked at him in dumb con­fu­sion.  “What?”

Dope, man, d’y­ou smoke fuckin weed?”  Off bal­ance, I answered.  “Yeah, when I can get it.”  “Don’t ever let those fuck­ers tell you dope’s bad, brotha, it got me through”.

Two days into it, I was deliri­ous.  They left me tied to the post, tied my chick to anoth­er one. She
tried to help me when they whipped, but could­n’t get near.  She was chained up so she could get close to me, maybe five feet away, no far­ther.  They fed her, talked to her, shot the shit.  It was so wild, here I was get­ting whaled on, and five feet away, five fuckin’ feet, my girl­friend is talk­ing about the rights of women.  Fuckin’ chicks.”  He smiled, and in that instant I saw every­thing good and noble about him.  I can’t explain it, not even now with a com­put­er screen in front of me, safe and warm in my own house, with the dis­tant sound of waves com­ing through the kitchen win­dow.  I saw a guy give a bum a hot sand­wich on a cold win­ter night once, that guy had the same look on his face, like… redemp­tion.  I don’t know. 

The stranger start­ed talk­ing again.

After three days I had noth­ing left, no food in my gut, no fat on me, no reserve.  The dope kicked in.  All the hash we’d smoked in the moun­tains, before she was preg­nant, before the war, before we were caught, came out of what was left of me, and I was in love with mankind, man, I was high as a kite, high­er than I’d ever been.  When they hit me I’d smile, and imag­ine my chick was just peel­ing skin off my back after a sun­burn, me on my bel­ly, her on top, strad­dling, on the beach right here, at Trestle’s.  That’s what got me the extra days.  On the fifth day I yelled out, “Hard­er, Achmed, I can’t feel it.”  I don’t know if he under­stood what I said, but I felt it that day.  The sev­en days start­ed over.”

Four days lat­er, the same thing.  My chick was scream­ing at me when she saw me open my mouth, she knew what was hap­pen­ing, she was watch­ing me fade, it was bad, you know.  Right after I said it, some­thing smart-ass again, you know, “Come on, take me to the next lev­el”, I saw her mouth open.  I could­n’t hear any­thing, but I knew I’d fucked up.  Because.”

It was­n’t hurt­ing ME, man.  I was beyond.  I was at the next lev­el.  I could­n’t feel it.  But it was her.  She was preg­nant, watch­ing me, watch­ing her man being beat­en to death, and she was so brave, women are strong, man, and she’d fig­ured out how to get through, know­ing how men are, and me, and how we like a chal­lenge, how we all want to be test­ed, how we all want to be The Few.  And I was fuck­ing it up.”

The guy was cry­ing.  Right in the mid­dle of about a hun­dred surfers, waves pil­ing up, pass­ing under us, you could see the heads bob­bing up and down, we were all a part of the ocean then, a part of each oth­er, feel­ing this guy’s sto­ry.  It was incred­i­ble, I’ll nev­er for­get it.  The sun, the cold water, the scars on his back, a light off­shore breeze just rip­pling the water.  It was a day to surf, but we were all lis­ten­ing.  Mesmerized.

Sev­en days lat­er I won.  They cut the straps that held me to that block of wood and I fell over like a bag
of shit.  My chick was on top of me, cry­ing, and I could feel her tears hit­ting my bones, I saw pieces of my skin on the ground around the post, and my blood, and the rest…

I don’t remem­ber what hap­pened until I land­ed in Madrid.”

“She did it all after that. She told me after they cut me down they just walked away. We had noth­ing. No camels, no food, no water. Man, I’ll always hold the door for a chick, every one of them deserves, fuck­ers are strong. I would’ve lain there till the birds come, but she picked me up and tromped off to some vil­lage. Got a taxi to some dirt run­way air­port, sweet talk­ing about fifty peo­ple along the way, got to Algiers, got on anoth­er plane to Madrid, called my folks, got mon­ey wired in, and I was home four days after I was cut off that post. Three years ago, that was.”

Got two kids now, the one we made in the desert and one from here. Fig­ure I’ll tell ’em when they ask. Fig­ure I’ll tell any­one when they ask, you know?”

He looked at me.

Jesus. What’d you do when you got back?” 

Noth­ing real­ly. I laid on my bel­ly for a while.” Short laugh. “Don’t real­ly do any­thing now. A lit­tle gar­den­ing, watch the kids. Surf. The chick sup­ports us. Got a web­site for desert explor­ers, you know. Fig­ured she does­n’t want any­one else to get hurt like us. Great chick. The best.” 

He turned, and I saw his back again. “Jesus.”

Lat­er, man.” 

He lay on his board and gave three or four deep strokes as a mam­moth wave rolled through. He shot by fifty surfers in twen­ty yards, the pack that had sur­round­ed him. Stand­ing up flu­id­ly, he gave a whoop, a quick turn back, a smile. All of us watched, see­ing him dis­ap­pear behind a wave, rid­ing free­dom, untouched. It was a long wave, and he rode it all the way to the beach. He jumped off his board, picked it up and splashed through the shal­lows to the tow-head­ed lit­tle boy run­ning towards him. I could­n’t hear any­thing, he was maybe 200 yards away. A light haired woman came walk­ing down the beach toward him, car­ry­ing anoth­er kid, a baby.

I turned, and caught a wave. 

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